By Garth Shanklin
They say winning is contagious. At Bethel-Tate High School, it’s even spread to the wrestling team’s coaching staff.
Fresh off a season in which the Tiger wrestlers set several milestones, including a second consecutive regional championship, head coach Tom Donahue wrestled and won his weight class at the US Open, held in Las Vegas April 25-28.
“It’s part of the US Open National Championships for freestyle and greco,” Donahue said. “A few years ago, I noticed that there was an age division group. It’s the same tournament, the first level of the world team trials for the senior wrestlers. We get to wrestle in the same arena, same stage as the best in the world.”
Donahue said he and former Bethel-Tate assistant coach Kipp Kahlenbeck had planned on wrestling in the tournament before, only to be derailed by life events. They were not deterred this time.
“They break it down by age division, and my assistant coach at the time, who went out and wrestled with me, we talked about this years ago, about going out there and trying to compete,” Donahue said. “It’s always been in the back of our mind, but a couple injuries here and there and life kind of got in the way, but this year we committed to it, went out there and did it.”
While there were no qualifying rounds to enter the tournament, there was one hurdle any potential wrestler had to clear.
“There was a medical qualification, for guys our age,” Donahue said. “You had to be cleared medically to wrestle.”
Once wrestlers were cleared medically, they would find themselves matched up against wrestlers from several places throughout the world.
“People from all over the world wrestled,” Donahue said. “My second match was against a guy from the Ukraine. The first guy I wrestled was from Texas. Poland brought a team in of older guys, Russia had some guys there. I saw some guys from France. It was a pretty awesome experience.”
Donahue said the experience brought back feelings he hadn’t felt in a while, and left him considering wrestling again in the world championships later this year.
“It’s been over 20 years since I competed, so wrestling in a tournament period was a little nerve wracking,” Donahue said. “There were butterflies that I hadn’t felt in a long time, but the setup was awesome. The experience was incredible. I was definitely sore the next couple days after, but now we’re considering wrestling in the world championships. For the veterans group, the masters division, they have world championships every year and this year it’s in Macedonia at the end of September.”
He started off this title run by defeating Marcus Collins from Dallas, Texas via pin in 3:00.
“I controlled that match pretty well,” Donahue said. “I was beating him 9-1 before I pinned him. It was good to get the butterflies out, and he ended up getting fourth place in the tournament.”
The opponents would only get tougher from there. In his next bout, Donahue went up against Igor Leuskyi, falling behind early. A couple takedowns later, Donahue pulled out another win via pin.
“He was a greco national champ the day before,” Donahue said. “I went in and was losing 6-0. He took me feet to back for four and turned me once for another two. I was able to snap him down to a front headlock and turn him twice before I pinned him, so I was actually down 6-4 before I pinned him.”
In the championship match, Donahue squared off against a familiar face: Kahlenbeck.
“He worked his way through the other half of the bracket, and in his semifinal match he beat the guy who beat him in the third/fourth place match in the greco tournament the day before,” Donahue said. “It was pretty cool wrestling him up on the championship stage for first.”
Donahue’s title builds on what the Bethel-Tate wrestling team accomplished during the winter, which included a sectional title with nine district qualifiers and an alternate, five sectional champs, the SBAAC National Division title and coach of the year award, and a fourth-place finish in the district tournament. The team also earned the SWOWCA DIII team and coach of the year awards while finishing second in the city poll.
On an individual level, Bethel-Tate had three wrestlers qualify for the state tournament, with a fourth earning an alternate spot. The school had a district champion for the first time since 1999, and Matt Hall and Trey Sander both placing at the state tournament gave Bethel-Tate multiple state placers for the first time since 1993. Four wrestlers finished the season with over 100 wins: Hall (139), Owen Holtke (119), Bradley Lewis (105) and Sander, who has 109 career wins entering his senior season.
Donahue said he hopes to be able to use his experience preparing for and wrestling at the tournament to help his wrestlers this season.
“The entire trip, the whole process from getting down to weight, putting the workouts in and counting the calories, I’ve dropped 20 pounds in about a month and a half from the high school tournament,” Donahue said. “Just being an example for the kids, this is how it’s supposed to be done and this is what you can do if you’re disciplined and put the work in to it. As coaches, we can get you there if you put the time and work in, we can help you achieve your goals. The entire trip, this entire process, was to set an example for these kids, and I hope we did that.”